Monday, September 14, 2009

Bad to Worse at Mt. Lebanon School District

Last week, in connection with the speech by President Obama to the nation's schoolchildren, I noted some quiet criticism in Mt. Lebanon of the District's instruction that each classroom teacher should decide whether or not to show the speech in class.

In the wake of that post, a reader forwarded to me a copy of a message that Superintendent Dr. Tim Steinhauer sent to the "AllAdministrators" email list in the district, stating the District's policy. I didn't publish the text of the email, because I thought that this was one issue where I thought that the blog didn't need to fan any flames.

Well, I didn't have to fan them, because what Mt. Lebanon did was noticed anyway.

From Slap Heap, the weblog written by Chris Potter, the editor of the Pittsburgh tabloid weekly City Paper, comes this scathing commentary on Mt. Lebanon:

They don't call it the South Hills for nothing, I guess. Lately, every other week brings new evidence that Pittsburgh's prosperous suburbs are turning Dixie.

The Mt. Lebanon school district, you may recall, is one of those districts -- like my very own Upper St. Clair -- that decided not to let its students see President Obama's stay-in-school speech last week.

But guess what? According to KDKA-TV, just days later, Lebo did have an event in whch grade schoolers observed the anniversary of 9/11. And what did the personnel at Markham Elementary teach their kids?

[T]he lesson they teach on this day isn't so much a history lesson. It is more of a public service appreciation lesson.

Ha! Sounds like fascism to me! "Public service appreciation"? They have that in Red China. What next? An invitation to join the Young Pioneers? Or -- God forbid -- Americorps?

But the high point of the story is this:

The officers and principal said the lesson they most want the post-9/11 generation to learn about is respecting community service.

Right. Respecting community service. I know that's a real priority over there in Mt. Lebanon. Unless that service takes the form of being the President of the United States of America. In which case -- repeat after me, class -- f*** that guy.

Yikes. There is more, but you get the drift. I thought that this might be a little harsh, so I went back and re-read Dr. Steinhauer's email. In it, he does not say that the speech will not be shown. But the message he delivers is not subtle: he expects that there would be "very few instances" in which teachers would decide to show it.

Sometimes Mt. Lebanon seems to act as if the bubble is real, as if the rest of the world never watches and never notices what happens here. Is this one of those times? Because, of course, the world is watching and it does notice, and as a result of this business Mt. Lebanon comes off either as a bastion of righteous intolerance or as the home of a patronizing and self-absorbed elite. Or both. A generation ago - maybe even a decade ago - both characterizations were probably not far from the truth. Today, folks on both sides of the political aisle would like to believe that Mt. Lebanon has changed for the better.

The irony is this, as Pogo once said, more or less: We've met the enemy and he is us. Mt. Lebanon doesn't need this blog to point out its problems; if the world is watching it's because Mt. Lebanon residents are increasingly on top of things themselves. (Chris Potter, the author of the blog post, is an Upper St. Clair native, which means that he understands the Lebo psyche as well as almost any Lebo native.) I've heard from residents who are thinking about moving *out* of Mt. Lebanon because of the intolerance they detect in this episode. To them I say: Please stay in town, because the town needs you. The Post-Gazette ran a letter to the editor from a courageous high school teacher protesting Pittsburgh-area school districts' failure to show the speech. That teacher, David Molinaro-Thompson, lives in Mt. Lebanon, although he does not teach here. He needs you, too.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike, you are letting your political stripes show. In all fairness you should have also mentioned the second letter, from another history teacher who takes a completely different, and well thought out viewpoint than the "courageous" teacher you cite.
Joe Wertheim

September 14, 2009 8:13 PM  
Blogger Mike Madison said...

Joe, I'm happy to let them show on this one. The second letter, from a different teacher (not a resident of Mt. Lebanon), is disingenuous: I never saw any suggestion that teachers should not use critical thinking with the speech and should not encourage their students do the same.

September 14, 2009 8:31 PM  
Anonymous Bob Reich, Jr. said...

I don't understand the "bastion of righteous elite" comment, Mike. The implication you are making is that there IS some sort of bubble here and, to be honest, I just don't see it. Maybe years ago when Mt. Lebanon was truly one of Pittsburgh's first "suburbs", but not now. How many places in Pittsburgh's suburbs can someone rent an apartment for $400 a month a few tenths of a mile away from million dollar homes? Fox Chapel, Sewickley, Upper St. Clair? I don't think so. That is what makes Mt. Lebo so appealing to so many. It really IS the a diverse community as far as income disparity, political opinion and family units are concerned. As far as ethnic diversity, maybe not so much. But it is becoming more ethnically diverse every year, and that is a good thing. Finally, as you have pointed out before, the Democrats outnumber the Republicans in town by a pretty good clip. So how does that speak to "the bubble"?

September 14, 2009 8:45 PM  
Blogger Mike Madison said...

Bob, the "bastion of righteous elite" wasn't my effort to characterize Mt. Lebanon today. The post is pretty clear (but maybe not clear enough?): I think that the characterization is outdated, for many of the reasons that you give. (I also wrote that people in Mt. Lebanon sometimes act *as if* the bubble were real. In other words, I'm trying to say that the bubble isn't real. I agree with you!) I like living in Mt. Lebanon; I don't want to drive people away. But with episodes like this, especially when they get picked up and re-broadcast by other media, the town gives itself a black eye -- it recalls the old bubble-based stereotypes, and perhaps encourages some new ones.

September 14, 2009 9:14 PM  
Anonymous Bob Reich, Jr. said...

Yes. I guess I should have re-read both the posting and my response before hitting "send". Doing too many things at once. In reality it makes far more sense for me to say I was speaking to the author of the Upper St. Clair blog where, I agree, there is far more of a bubble than exists here.

September 14, 2009 10:04 PM  
Blogger Mike Madison said...

I'm guilty of the same thing more often than most people are, I think. Five blogs, a handful of Facebook pages, multiple Twitter accounts, spouse, kids, dog, job ....

September 14, 2009 10:12 PM  
Anonymous Marjie Crist said...

From what I've heard among the moms, some who personally reached out to their teachers, principals and/or higher admin folks, the original position as given to and reported by KDKA pre-speech (that the decision was being left up to the teachers) was not exactly true. I know of a few (wondering if it was all of them?) elementary schools where teachers had NO choice and were not permitted to show the speech. The parameters for showing the speech in the high school were very narrowly drawn.

I know many parents were left wondering if the public spin was nothing more than an attempt to keep Mt. Lebanon off the official reported list of districts not showing the speech when the district decision was exactly that: the speech was not shown and most teachers were not given the option to show the President.

Marjie Crist

September 14, 2009 10:31 PM  
Anonymous John Ewing said...

ohnI ran a bit overtime speaking at the school board meeting on Monday, September 14th. A note crossed the table from one of the directors at Mr. Silhol’s left. He asked to finish speaking. Apparently, someone didn’t want to listen.
Why all the RUSH by the Board to spend an extra $900,000 interest on the $69,000,000 bond issue by issuing them early while ignoring a $20,000,000 savings on the building cost suggested in the Taylor Report?

September 15, 2009 12:08 AM  
Blogger Bob Williams said...

People come, people go. Alec Baldwin promised he was moving to Canada if "W" won in '04. Last time I checked, he still lived here in the good 'ole USA.
If anything, folks are leaving Mt. Lebanon because they just can't justify the tax bill. If they can move about 10 miles south and save thousands a year, well, the choice is for some a necessity.
As far as the Potter link, I saw the "end game" by the fifth paragraph. It's a vitriol-laced rant by someone on the far left--not center left, not center right, not by someone who is interested in hearing another point of view. But, he is speaking to his readers--and that's what they want to hear.
If anything over the past 10 years, the partisan polarization in this country has reached toxic levels. It has slowly enveloped the psyche of the nation, with Washington, D.C at its core. Is it any surprise then, that the general public has stuck its head in the collective sand, turned off the radio and TV, and tuned out government?
It takes a brave soul to go before the public forum and take a stand. There are partisan vipers waiting in the wings to dissect everything you say, mock and embarass. Ask school board members if that rings true.
Whether the president's talk was aired in the schools is of no consequence. With YouTube and various other outlets, each and every student who wanted to hear the speech could.
This wasn't a free speech issue.
No doubt, the far right was Punk'd by the president as they should have been. In reality the fears weren't founded. Just like the fears weren't founded by the far left when the first President Bush talked to kids. And the second President Bush.
See a pattern here?
Is it about doing the right thing for the people and kids--or is it simply about winning?
You have a gentleman named Dirk Taylor who volunteered his time to help the district save money on the high school project. He's not alone as we have seen here.
Since then, everyone who supports the project has been scrambling to get to the top of the mountain before the other guy. Instead of debating the issues in public, we're arguing over whether Mr. Taylor spoke in public when invited. Over what the architect's marching orders were. Over what "option" of the four worked best by the architects.
Is that thinking outside the box?
Early on, the district decided there would be no "portable classrooms." This was factored into the architect's plans. But could the district have saved money by using them? Upper St. Clair will in its middle school renovation. James Fraasch asked the architect to provide cost savings (or not) if portable classrooms were utilized. He's still waiting for an answer. The silence on all levels is deafening.
Like Mr. Taylor, a group of folks who support athletic facilites in the community came to the school board. Earlier this year they offered to help the district scout facilities, get grant money and save millions in costs while improving amenities. Did the district follow up? These people also volunteered their time to make the school better at reduced cost. Were they even recognized? I've heard nothing since about them.
Is anyone thinking outside the box in Mt. Lebanon?
Or is it more like boarding up the windows and doors, and sitting inside waiting...for the so-called "malcontents" to break down the door?

September 15, 2009 5:35 PM  
Anonymous David Brown said...

If you're thinking of leaving Mt. Lebanon over this, stay here and speak out instead. Fight for what is right. We're winning because people like you care and are willing to do something about it instead of hiding or running away. You might want to check out MESH, a local group helping the President succeed and promoting progressive values locally. Add your voice. You can make a difference.

September 15, 2009 7:38 PM  
Anonymous Dave Franklin said...

If someone in Mt. Lebanon is considering moving out of Mt. Lebanon because of this incident, let me know where you end up because according to published reports Peters Twp., Bethel Park, Chartiers Valley, Fox Chapel, Hampton, McKeesport, North Allegheny, North Hills, Penn-Trafford, Pine-Richland, Plum and Upper St. Clair didn't show the speech. Personally, I have no problem with the President of the United States or the cafeteria lady telling my kids to study hard and stay in school. And Mike, I agree that when given the opportunity, we should all take the high road.

However, I feel compelled to add that this issue only underscores the growing uncomfortable, petty tug-of-war that exists in Mt. Lebanon these days. Everything is a battle - but for what? Mr. Brown says “Fight for what is right?” What does that even mean? What are we fighting for? Why are we even fighting?

I received an email from a friend (a conservative Republican) the other day that really struck a chord with me. He said, "I have come to the conclusion that a cooperative, consensus-building, bipartisan approach is the only way ANYTHING is going to get done in Lebo. I am, quite frankly, sick of the personal agendas, divisiveness and exclusionary tactics employed by many within positions of power in this community. We are so lacking of any leadership within Lebo and we have stagnated because of the inability of anybody to unite the community." Amen! I’d wager $20 that I could stop 50 voters on Washington Rd and well over half wouldn’t even know the party affiliation of our School Board members and Commissioners!! Why?? Because they are absolutely irrelevant! Yet certain factions of this community continue to throw partisan wedges between us all.

When I was a kid growing up here, there were Rs and Ds, liberals and conservatives, have and have-nots. More importantly though, we had a whole helluva lot of strong leaders. Businessmen and volunteers who stepped up for the sake of stepping up. People willing to give of themselves without asking for something in return. People who said and did what was right, regardless of what other people may have thought or what their party told them to think. People like Robert Seymour, Bryson Schreiner, Wiley Bucey, Leon Hickman, Dave Wholeber, Wally & Guy Bland, Dr. Frank Pawlosky, Jack Armstrong, Stan Marshall, Ed Sell and others. I'm not implying that we don't have good people anymore, but their good deeds are certainly overshadowed (and in some instances left incomplete), due to all of the bickering and BS.

September 15, 2009 9:09 PM  
Blogger Stirling Lathrop said...

am intrigued by the Mt. Lebanon School District's decision not to let its students see or hear President Obama's message to students about education. I am intrigued because the message was entirely positive and, by no stretch of the imagination, could it have caused any harm to the students seeing or hearing it. Therefore, if the message was positive and harmless, one is forced to conclude that it was not the message but the messenger who was the source of the School District's decsion. Yet this is the President who was delivering the message. Does the School District fear him because he is a model of educational success? Because he is seen by some as liberal? Because he is black? Are those the fears that dictated the School Distirct's decision? Whatever the specific fear, it is clear that fear, not rational thinking, drove the School District's thinking. And if this is true in this case, how much can one trust the School District to make rational decsions -- as opposed to fear based decisions -- on important future issues. This is something that all citizens of Mt. Lebanon need to consider seriously.

September 17, 2009 6:02 PM  
Anonymous Nancy Jankowiak said...

The speech given by President Obama to America's school children earlier this month was an inspirational message to the youth of our nation. And yet, the Mount Lebabon school children were denied the opportunity to hear this address.
Reportedly, the decision on whether to air the speech in Mt. Lebanon was left to the discretion of individual teachers and principals. This decision was wrong on both accounts. The correct decision that should have been made by the administration would have been to allow all students to hear the speech. I was not surprised when other school districts in the area banned President Obama's speech from their classrooms. I was shocked, however, to learn that Mt. Lebanon was among them. I frankly expected more of this school district.

September 20, 2009 12:04 PM  

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